If there is any franchise on the EA Sports line-up that doesn’t get as much love and recognition as say FIFA or Madden, it’s NHL. They have received plenty of awards throughout this console generation and is the only option for anyone who is looking to get their hockey fix. With brand new engines, tweaks, and rename of one of their main modes, it looks like it could be a good year of hockey. Sadly, the folks at EA Canada seem to want to drop one glove and get on with the next-gen transition, than drop both gloves and give its fans the complete hockey experience they’ve always dreamed of. Here is our review of NHL 14.
NHL 14 has gotten plenty of additions and tweaks when it comes to the gameplay. Everything from a refined skating engine, brand new enforcer engine, and dropping the gloves has gotten completely reworked. The True Performance Skating has received the right amount of tweaks to allow for better positioning on the ice and has given the game a much better overall pace. With quicker steps and pivots feeling more organic, trying to do certain moves with the wrong player can result in turnovers or getting caught in a position to get laid out by a defender. No longer will the defense be caught flat footed leading to a break for the offensive team as the defense squares up to players to take away any breakaway opportunities. While speed is still a major part of the game, breakaways feel more deserved in some instances than last year when it was running wild. The better player positioning also really helps players who like to set up in the offensive zone to try and create scoring chances from different parts on the ice. The defense also does a great job at staying onside and keeping the offensive zone play alive.
When EA implemented the True Performance Skating engine last year, it did something to the hitting that made it feel unnatural and sometimes very frustrating. This year the new Collision Physics, with the help of FIFA’s Impact Player Engine, combines the skating and hitting to provide a much better combination on the ice. Players finish their checks and the velocity and strength to these hits provides more variety in how they look. EA has stated plenty of times that these hits will have players falling all over the place with rag doll effects and that is true. You’ll occasionally see some weird rag doll animations after hits, but for the most part, it isn’t over the top.
With improved skating and hitting, one thing was left that EA felt needed a complete overhaul and that was fighting. With the help of Fight Night technology, the new Enforcer Engine makes its way into the NHL series. Gone is the first person perspective with everyone on the ice disappearing, and enter the new third-person perspective with all your teammates watching. You can have stand-up style boxing matches or toggle with one-another on the ice trying to get in the knockout blow. While you can still initiate fights manually by pressing Y, fights will happen more organically when someone does something out of line. Someone ran into your goaltender and put him on his back? Fight them. Someone just laid out and injured one of your teammates? Stand up for him.
While in the demo they happened way too often, players will find the right balance in the retail game, kind of. Fights happen more than they should on lower difficulties but on hardcore simulation, they happen less and feel right when they do happen. You’ll be able to agree to a fight, but sometimes the computer will make that choice for you if you do something like shoot at the team’s goalie after play has stopped. My only complaint was that sometimes players who aren’t known for fighting, will be forced to drop the gloves. When you see someone like Kane or Malkin drop the gloves to fight a team’s enforcer, it’s weird to see. Also, it boggles my mind to see that fighting instigator penalties are not given in the game.
There is one last thing that does detract from the new engine sadly and that’s when playing online. You’ll occasionally run into a player who will fight at the first chance they get, but they don’t bother to fight the way the game intends users to fight. Instead, the mentality from the last fighting engine sinks in as players will mash the right stick up to punch constantly while trying to dodge or counter his mashing becomes pointless. Against the computer, the fighting engine is fun. Online, you start to get that feeling that all you’re in is a third person perspective of the previous fighting engine.
Overall the gameplay feels a lot better over last year but there are some issues still present. Certain ways to score are abused, on and offline, and if you’re a hardcore fan of the series you’ll find new issues and old ones. AI logic has been slightly improved but they still hold on to the puck way to much in the neutral zone and are still very passive. The poke check has been somewhat dumbed down but is abused highly online. Penalties are called more often and interference penalties are finally being called correctly. Lastly, the difficulty is very inconsistent.
I’ve been playing on All-Star difficulty for years because I felt it had the right balance between difficulty and not getting abused by an overpowered AI. This year, that has changed entirely. Playing on All-Star and simulation settings, I was blowing out the computer badly. Scoring at will and putting up scores that are plain ridiculous. I have bumped up the difficulty to Superstar and changed the game to Hardcore Simulation and let me tell you, if you are a veteran of the series and looking for the right balance in gameplay and difficulty, this is what you want to use. NHL 14 is made to be played on Superstar with Hardcore Simulation.
Live the Life is the new Be a Pro for the NHL series. It takes everything from the original mode but it adds in a new likability system and text based questions that look to replicate the life of an NHL star. Everything from pre and post-game interviews to helping your team pull a prank on a teammate. You’ll even get sponsorships and the chance to be on the cover of the next EA Sports NHL game. While the concept is nice to try and revive a mode that’s been untouched for a few years, the effort doesn’t feel complete. Questions you get sometimes don’t make sense to the situation, consequences are weird and don’t feel like they do much, and often times you’ll lose likability for simple things like giving respect to your teammates. Plus once you’ve seen a question once, even if some words get changed around, you’ll know how to answer it to provide a boost to any of the four likability slots (family, teammates, fans, and management). It starts to become really predictable and this is just after one season.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a step in the right direction as it looks to compete with other single player modes like 2K’s My Player or MLB’s Road to the Show but the effort, like most things in the game, doesn’t feel complete. I hope they expand and polish the mode come next-gen but we’ll have to wait and see.
The other main modes like GM Connected and Be a GM have received some minor but useful tweaks. Trade difficulty has been added to Be a GM and draft picks are now valued properly. Editing lines has received a nice overhaul and it is a lot simpler to put the lines you want together than it was in years past. Jumping lines and finding the gaps in your lineup is simple as any empty position is highlighted in red and to add on, you can finally have your assistant coach switch up the goalie rotation when you decide to simulate games. Also, pre-season has been expanded from four games to the actual seven like they have in the NHL.
GM Connected on the other hand works a little better now. Menus load faster than last year and league commissioners have better messaging options. They’ll also be able to see entire period schedules so they won’t have to message other teams constantly to tell them to finish games. Browsing through the different menus like trade or free agents have improved though getting to the main hub can still be a drag as you have to wait for the game to load in all the information in the league. There is no fantasy draft option however and your time in this mode will be carried on whether or not you have a group of friends who play games frequently to advance through the season.
Never has collecting cards, auctioning players, and pulling a superstar like Steven Stamkos in a pack been more exciting. Hockey Ultimate Team returns and while on the surface it looks like the same mode from last year, they did make a few noticeable changes to help give it some extra life.
Following the footsteps of FIFA, HUT has added an online seasons mode for players to use their best cards on the road to division one. There are four conferences and ten divisions to compete in. You can play at your own pace to finish the 10-game season and hopefully get enough to be promoted to the next. Fail to reach the promotion and you’ll stay in that division. Fail to reach the points needed to stay in that division and you’ll get demoted back down. It’s a simple concept and one that gives HUT some new and much needed life. However, there are no limits on salary for your team and if you start going in with your starter pack, you’ll most likely run into players with NHL caliber cards on their roster. While matchmaking does it’s best to put you against players with your caliber team and experience, you’ll occasionally run into that one player who is stacked beyond belief with the highest rated HUT cards.
The second notable addition is the auction house feature that informs you on how rare and valuable your card is on the market. For players who like to sell their best cards for the most pucks possible, you’ll get all the information you need like lowest price, highest price, and even the cost paid for by the last person for that particular card. Outside of auction house and online seasons, everything else is still here. Tournaments, online head-to-head, face off against a friend, or face off against the computer. It would have been nice if they added an offline seasons mode for those who don’t want to deal with the hardcore, and sometimes frustrating, online community.
Online Seasons also made its way to the EASHL, with the same concept as HUT except you play with your teammates online and not with cards by yourself. It lets players play the way they want and as much as they want without the feeling of having to play 10-20 games a night just to make a dent in the leaderboards. Play-offs happen more often and not monthly like it used to, which is fine, and going into drop-in games have been given a much better positioning method to try and eliminate player drops. The hockey shop has also been tweaked a bit as the +1 has been replaced by +3 and players will be able to reach +15 on a certain stat. Though once a stat line in a player type has reached its max, you can’t go beyond it. So if your player has 85 speed, the max is 90, and you decide to use +7 on that stat; you’re wasting 2 points that could go elsewhere.
It’s hard to sit here and say that I remember my time with NHL 94 almost 20 years ago. In reality, I was 6 years old and while I did play the game, I can’t give you any childhood memories of my time with it. I understand if EA is trying to give hardcore fans that feeling of nostalgia, but it’s all undersold in the package EA gave us. The sounds are there, the goal celebration is there, the blue ice is there, and even the star underneath the player is there; but that’s it. No retro menus, special artwork, or even a special cinematic. We’ve had the 94 control scheme in the game for years now and this is pretty much NHL 14 with those controls, no rules, and blue ice. Don’t get me wrong, if you feel like playing a game with a friend locally so you can just beat the puck out of each other, then enjoy and have a great time. In this sense, yeah it is fun for that once in a while arcade feeling.
While I appreciate the inspiration for this mode, the mode itself gives the advertisements no justice. I feel as if they should have given us NHL 94 with updated teams and rosters as an Xbox Live Arcade game or bundle it as a special NHL 94 edition for the game with Marty on the cover in pixel form. If you’re going to go back to the past, do it in full force.
Between the whistles, NHL 14’s presentation is as old as Teemu Selene. It’s nearly identical to the last two games and fans of the series will find certain aspects that have been around as far back as NHL 07. When you’ve heard all, and I mean all, of the lines in commentary for Gary Throne and Bill Clement; you know they’ve stayed beyond there welcome. The PA announcer still gets names wrong, a handful of arenas haven’t been touched to replicate the real-life counterpart, and the more you look into the games presentation, the more you find things that should have been changed years ago. The menu is cluttered and to find key modes, like EASHL, is like looking for a penny in sand. They have a featured list at the main menu with their key game modes (NHL 94 Anniversary mode, Live the Life, and Ultimate Team), but it would have been smart on their part to let the user customize this aspect of the menu with what they play most so they can avoid digging through menus.
EA Canada obviously felt that on the presentation side of things, very minor changes were needed. As a major EA Sports NHL fan, when I look at Madden, NCAA, or even Tiger Woods; it’s disheartening to see how little work is done to bring an authentic NHL experience to its fans. It’s even more frustrating when you find things that weren’t untouched or in some instances, got worse.
When you step on to the ice, you will feel that this is the best playing hockey game EA Canada has made this generation, and in a way I do agree. Outside of that, the rest of the package feels lazy. Live the Life doesn’t feel complete, Be a GM and GM Connected were given minor tweaks, and the presentation is in need of a major overhaul come next-gen. NHL 14 shows the age of the franchise and it hasn’t aged that well. The lack of passion or attention to give its fans the complete NHL package hasn’t been shown and it hasn’t been shown for a while. For a franchise that has won a ton of “Sports Game of the Year” awards over the years, they have now started to talk the talk, more than they walk the walk.